How to Recognize Cancer Distress — and Cope with It

November 28, 2017
Teresa L. Deshields, PhD, ABPP

Teresa L. Deshields, PhD, ABPP, is a licensed psychologist and manager of the Siteman Counseling Service for the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine (WUMC) in St. Louis, MO. She's also a clinical associate professor in the Department of Medicine at WUMC, a fellow of the American Psychosocial Oncology Society, and vice-chair of the Distress Management Panel for the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. Her clinical practice is devoted to treating cancer survivors and their family members.

Distress is a common reaction to cancer. share on twitter In general, distress makes you feel like you can’t handle the problems you’re facing. You may experience it mentally, physically, socially, or spiritually—or in all of these ways.

What causes distress?

Everyone is different and has different circumstances that can cause distress. If your life tends to be hectic and busy, it may be harder to cope with the demands of cancer treatment. Or, your distress may be related to practical issues, like finding transportation to your treatment appointments or providing care for family members who depend on you. If finances are tight, paying for treatment or not being able to work can make your life more difficult.

Distress can also be related to physical problems from your cancer or the side effects of treatment. And some treatments may be tougher to handle than others.

While some distress is “normal,” it can still be disruptive and reduce the overall quality of your life.

What does distress look like?

Distress looks different from person to person, but common signs include:

  • Sadness or fear

  • Anger or feeling irritable

  • Avoiding friends and family

  • Worries about your cancer or how it’s affecting your family

  • Physical problems, such as poor appetite, fatigue, and sleep problems

  • Financial worries

  • Doubts about your faith

  • Trouble concentrating or remembering things

If these feelings come and go, there’s no reason to be concerned. But if they last for a long time or start to interfere with your life, it’s important to speak up about them and get help.

Getting help

Cancer is hard enough without having to deal with distress as well. Even if your distress isn’t severe, it can help to:

  • Talk to your cancer care team. When seeking help for distress, it’s always a good idea to start with your oncology team. Your team wants you to successfully get through treatment and to adjust to life as a cancer survivor as well as you possibly can. Sharing your problems with your treatment team can help them support you more effectively.

  • Connect with other cancer survivors. There’s a growing community of cancer survivors that can help you find your own path through cancer. That community is getting larger and larger as cancer treatments get better and better. You can attend a support group or an educational program for survivors, or you can pair up with a cancer survivor through “buddy programs.”

  • Get counseling. Counseling helps people respond to their mixed emotions about life’s challenges, including cancer, in healthy ways. Ask your oncology team to recommend a counselor who understands the difficulties that come with being diagnosed with cancer and participating in cancer treatment.


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